All set for regional assemblies in England

9 May 02
The future outline of English regional government was laid out on May 9 when Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Local Government Secretary Stephen Byers launched the regions white paper.

10 May 2002

As Public Finance went to press, officials were putting the final touches to the document, which will pave the way for directly elected assemblies in the English regions. But a preview given to PF sketched out the government's proposals.

The assemblies will be funded through a combination of block grant from central government and the transfer of existing budgets from the organisations whose responsibilities they will assume or oversee.

The split is expected to be in the region of one-third from block grant and two-thirds from existing bodies. But the assemblies will not be given tax-raising powers.

The size of the budgets will vary according to the size and populations of the regions. The Northeast, which is expected to be the first area to set up an assembly, could expect an initial budget of around £1.1bn.

As expected, the assemblies will shadow the areas covered by the eight regional development agencies and will oversee their responsibilities for regional economies and regeneration. They will also take on a scrutiny role for organisations such as the Learning and Skills Councils.

In addition, they will be responsible for drawing up regional strategies in a range of areas, such as transport, housing, culture and the environment. They will also be obliged to develop a health strategy, although they will not have any say over the NHS in their areas. They are not expected to have any legislative powers.

Civil service support for the new bodies will be provided by the existing Government Offices for the Regions.

Don Price, national campaign officer for the Campaign for the English Regions, said the white paper was an 'historic step' forward. 'This is the first government that has recognised the need to devolve decision-making to the regional level, and recognised the need for democratic accountability,' he said.

The public would have to support the founding of any assembly in a regional referendum. Each is likely to comprise 25 to 30 members, from which a six- to eight-member executive would be drawn.

The white paper was almost certain to recommend the removal of an existing tier of government in areas setting up assemblies, probably county councils, but it was unclear whether that would be compulsory. Legislation enabling referendums is expected in this autumn's Queen's Speech, allowing the first vote to be held in 2003.

Shadow local government secretary Theresa May, speaking ahead of publication of the proposals, dismissed assemblies as expensive talking shops. 'These assemblies are a centralising tool, taking power away from local councils, such as over planning and transport,' she added.

The Local Government Association was not available for comment.


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